"Best to steer clear of minority interests,” a college professor advises student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) in Misbehaviour, an impressive British film based on women’s liberation group protests at the 1970 Miss World competition in London.
The reel academic and pageant host, acclaimed comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) are telling representatives of the majoritarian male mindset in real life. Pertinently, the characters, principal and supporting, are conceived with accuracy and understanding. Take, for example, the scene where divorced, single parent Sally’s joy on securing admission to university, is expressed in embracing her live-in partner. Hugging her little daughter is an after-thought. But her remorse is genuine. The face-off between Sally and her widowed mother, and Sally and radical feminist, Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), highlights the tensions between the old conservatism and the new feminism, which disrupted the beauty pageant with shouts of “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we are angry.”
But it is in intimate scenes that director Philippa Lowthorpe reveals commendable insight and empathy. Aptly, the script is saturated with positive themes — courage, integrity, perseverance, teamwork, activism and standing up for a just and equitable society.
Adhering to the titular act, the movie critiques patriarchy, beauty pageants. which assist in the objectification of women courtesy swimsuits and sexist commentary, notwithstanding simpatico co-organiser Julia Morley’s assertion that poise, deportment and style are crucial elements.
I must confess I enjoyed watching the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants, which empowered some contestants while celebrating (or exploiting) their looks.
The feminist critique of pageants had salutary results: The Morleys engaged chaperones for each and every contestant and more importantly, included a South African black beauty to pacify anti-apartheid activists who denounced the pageant as racist.
It didn’t matter to them that in 1966, Reita Faria, a medico from India, was crowned Miss World, the first Asian woman to win the event. Grenada’s Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) became the first black woman to win the controversial 1970 pageant. The end credits show the real life contestants then and now.
A stewardess who aspired to be a broadcaster, Hosten would study international relations and become a high ranking diplomat. More footage should have been devoted to the apartheid segment, but all in all, Misbehaviour is a nuanced, sensitively directed dramedy enhanced by period atmosphere, a great cast and a multi-layered and still relevant narrative.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe